By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 13, 2006
Joshua Foer remembers thinking he did not have a chance to win the USA Memory Championship. That wasn't his goal. The D.C. resident was participating as a lark, for a book he is writing that explores and demystifies memory.
But as it turns out, Foer remembers a lot of things -- such as how to duplicate a shuffled deck of cards or memorize a list of 100 numbers in five minutes.
Using methods more than 2,500 years old, Foer, 23, performed those feats more quickly than other contestants and recollected his way to victory Saturday at the ninth annual national championship, held in New York. He was "hugely surprised," he said.
"There's a whole global subculture of people who get together to see who can remember the most stuff -- it's really bizarre," said Foer, a recent Yale graduate and freelance writer. "I figured to do a book correctly, I had to walk in their shoes. . . . It was not even on my radar screen to win."
Foer always thought he had "a fairly good memory," he said, "but nothing unusual -- a lot of people think that." After attending the contest last year for an article he wrote for Slate, the online magazine owned by The Washington Post Co., Foer began planning a book -- and working on his memory about 10 minutes a day. He used techniques developed about 477 B.C. by the Greek poet Simonides that were a staple of classical education until the proliferation of books made the practice of memorization less urgent.
"They all rely on the principle that our brains are no good at remembering things that aren't interesting, like a long string of numbers. Most people can hold about seven numbers in their head at one time," Foer said.
What the brain is good at, he said, is remembering things that are spatial and visual, such as the layout of one's home. In a deck of cards, for example, Foer "translates" each card in advance into a memorable image and a familiar place; the king of diamonds, he said, became former president Bill Clinton standing in the front door of Foer's home. The king of hearts became singer Michael Jackson, he said, and so on.
At Saturday's event, which was open to anyone, 37 contestants, including a 12-year-old student from Long Island, N.Y., participated in timed challenges, said Anthony J. Dottino, a New York business consultant who launched the national contest after noting how "negative" people are about their memories. Six finalists then took to a brightly lighted stage for the showdown.
"There was nothing easy about it. It totally fried my brain. I went home, had a beer and went to sleep," said Foer, whose brothers also have achieved a measure of fame. Franklin Foer is editor of the New Republic magazine; Jonathan Safran Foer is a novelist.
Winning the contest -- along with two round-trip tickets to the world championships in Malaysia in August -- has given Foer an unforeseen sense of responsibility. Now he feels he really has to sharpen his memory.
Although Foer set a national record for memorizing a shuffled deck of cards -- one minute and 40 seconds -- the world record, he said, is 30 seconds.
"I can't even turn over the cards in 30 seconds," he said.